Three Weeks Ago (February 22, 2020)

No coronavirus cases had been reported in Oregon as of three weeks ago, so most Oregonians weren’t too concerned about it.  Unlike most people in Oregon, however, I’d been closely monitoring the outbreak in China, and more recently in Italy, which had just been hit.  I'm not a worry wart, just a compulsive news junkie.  As I watched the virus spread across the globe, I figured it was probably coming here to Oregon, though probably not for a month or two.  

Being one of those borderline "older folks" who's more vulnerable to the coronavirus, I knew that I needed to take this potential threat seriously.  I also figured that distancing myself was probably the most helpful thing that I, or anyone, could do for society during a pandemic.  Therefore, I decided to really stock up with food and supplies as a precaution.  I had been a transportation planner for 10 years and the planner in me is always trying to think ahead, so I decided to condense four month’s worth of trips to the grocery store into one weekend.  I wasn't worried about shortages but it would be wise, I figured, to make as few visits to the grocery store as possible if the virus ever hit Oregon.  I was grateful to be able to stock up because so many Americans, including the millions who live paycheck-to-paycheck, unfortunately cannot.

I walked around my house and thought about everything I'd need for the next four months, including non-perishable and freezable food, paper towels, and hand sanitizer, then wrote up an extensive list.  I then made several trips to the nearby Fred Meyer grocery store over the weekend and filled dozens of grocery bags with supplies and non-perishables, including lots of spaghetti, rice, baked beans and 22 cans of my “go-to” meal over the past four decades, Campbell’s Chunky Soup (hey, it's "The soup that eats like a meal"!)  I stashed all the goodies in my refrigerator, freezer and especially my bedroom closet, which is now like a mini-grocery store that I amusingly call “Leu’s Market,” in honor of my grandfather George who ran a similarly-named store in Seattle for many years back in the 1920s.  With 16 jars of Prego lining my closet shelves (not to mention the Chunky Soup), I was ready for anything! 

Above:  My grandparents, George and Minnie Leu, with my cousin Charlotte.  This was in 1942 at the second "Leu's Market" -- this one in Skykomish, Washington.

Of course, if the virus didn’t hit Oregon I'd feel pretty foolish having bought all the food and supplies.  But that was fine because 1). I'm used to feeling foolish and 2). it was non-perishable food that I’d normally eat over the course of a year or two, anyway.  I also figured that liquid soap, paper towels and toothpaste don’t have expiration dates so I could always use them.  Heck, you can never have enough of the Quicker Picker Upper -- a.k.a. Bounty towels.

I got in my truck on Saturday morning and headed to the Fred Meyer store during the first of many such trips that weekend.  On the way, I saw my neighbor, Ron, loading a set of golf clubs into his pickup truck, apparently heading out for a round of golf.  I waved as I drove by and thought that rather than playing golf, he might want to stock up for the coronavirus.  I hoped he was ready.

After I pulled into the Fred Meyer parking lot, I grabbed a large shopping cart and walked carefully up and down each aisle.  I didn't doing any crazy panic-buying or frantic hoarding like what I see today in Oregon (Two cases of bottled water?  Really?  Is soggy Oregon going to run out of water?)  Instead, I just focused on my extensive list.  Quite extensive, actually.  I made so many purchases over the weekend, in fact, that my bank issued a temporary freeze on my credit card to cool it off.  I was a bit embarrassed when the cashier, with a rather disgusted look, told me -- and everyone else in line -- that my card had been declined.  Fortunately though, I had another card which I sheepishly handed to her.

I bought everything on my list over the course of the weekend, but also put a few items back on the shelves for others.  That included a large bottle of Dial liquid soap that I had put in my cart.  I wanted to buy it -- heck, there was plenty on the shelves for everyone, I figured -- but a few minutes later, I decided that I probably had enough soap.  If a shortage did arise, I wanted someone else to have it, so I wheeled my cart across the store and put the bottle back on the shelf.  Yes, being prepared is important, but I also figured that we're all in this together.

What really struck me during those numerous trips to the store that weekend, though, was that I didn’t see anyone else stocking up or preparing in any way.  Not one person.  Didn't people know what was going on in the world, I wondered?  Or perhaps too many of them had been listening to Donald Trump downplaying this threat.  I thought about the news segments I see every September of folks in Florida suddenly descending on Home Depot or Lowes, frantically buying supplies for an approaching hurricane.  I think to myself every time I see those clips, “They know they live in a hurricane area, so why don’t they just buy that stuff in advance rather than wait and panic?”  

But from the complacency and ho-hum lack of concern that I saw in the grocery store, I began to think that maybe I was overreacting to the coronavirus.  In fact, some of my friends laughed at me a few days later when I told them I'd bought four month’s worth of food and supplies (and 22 cans of Chunky Soup) getting ready in case the virus hit.  Gee, maybe I had overreacted a bit?  I started to wonder.

Five days later the first virus case hit Oregon, much sooner than I, or probably anyone else, figured.  And it was right here in Washington County.  Medical experts said it was a case of “community spread,” meaning there were probably dozens of asymptomatic folks in this county who were contagious.  I hadn’t overreacted, after all.  The virus was definitely coming.

Two Weeks Ago (March 2, 2020)

I escalated my response again the next day.  After the first coronavirus case hit Oregon, I decided to stop commuting to Metro, the regional planning agency for the Portland area, and instead work from home.  I had worked at Metro for the past two years doing computer mapping work, but I figured that my annual salary there wouldn’t cover even a single trip to the E.R. if I got sick from the coronavirus while working there, even with my health insurance.  I thought back to 2014 when I came down with pneumonia and went to an Emergency Room in Dallas, Texas.  They cured me, all right, but the bill for my brief (four hour) stay in the E.R. was $12,700, most of which my insurance company refused to cover.  I figured that any bout with coronavirus would be a heck of a lot more expensive (and a lot more invasive) than my brief treatment for pneumonia. 

Above:  The cheerful patient in a Dallas Emergency Room back in 2014.  I wasn't smiling as much after I received the $13,000 bill for my four-hour stay, most of which my insurance company refused to cover.

As much as I enjoyed Metro, working in the office there wasn’t worth it anymore, so I went into the building at 5:30 a.m. before anyone else, picked up my things, and promptly left.  I’m not a germaphobe but, given the virus that was now floating around Portland, I didn’t care to see or interact with anyone in the building.  I thought back to my bout with pneumonia with every breath being painful, and I didn't relish the thought of having something like that ever again.  No thank you.

Since vacating my desk at Metro, and being the introvert I am, I’ve been happily holed up in my house until the virus (hopefully) subsides, being quite content not to associate with anyone.  I’m lucky that I can self-isolate in a comfortable house, because many people can’t.  I especially think about the homeless and those in nursing homes who have nowhere to go to avoid the virus.  I also think about people with no health insurance or who can't afford to leave their jobs for a while.  I also think about the doctors and nurses who are on the front lines battling this outbreak, and about the folks who work in grocery stores, making sure everyone can buy food -- even the cashiers who scowl while you dig a second credit card out of your wallet. 

If you've been following my website, you know that I worked in the Middle East for three years.  I consider those my "sacrificial three years" because living in Qatar was difficult and I really missed America -- but it paid fairly well, much better than what I could've earned here in America.  In fact, that's about the only way Middle Eastern countries can entice Westerners to move over there.  During those three difficult years, I was able to sock away a little money to use as a buffer, so I'll probably be OK during this crisis (unless I get sick).  But I think about people who don't have that resource.   I also think about how thankful I am that I live alone, without a spouse or children to worry about catching the virus – and, from a selfish perspective, not having to worry about them infecting me.

I'm sure many of my co-workers at Metro thought I was overreacting and I admit that in the days following my departure, with no new cases of coronavirus reported in Oregon, I was feeling a little foolish.  Maybe I had gone a bit overboard?  But now, two weeks later, cancellations and closures have suddenly hit Oregon en masse, including a statewide closure of all public schools for several weeks that was imposed yesterday.  So once again, in retrospect I figured that I hadn’t overreacted after all.

Oh, and several days after I vacated my desk at Metro, Portlanders finally started to stock up on groceries and supplies, something I'd done nearly two weeks earlier.  Except instead of careful planning, from the clips I saw on the news it was becoming more like frantic hoarding.  Sometimes I overreact to things but apparently not this time.

One Week Ago (March 8, 2020)

For the past several weeks, I’d watched Donald Trump downplay the coronavirus threat in America, including his inexcusably delayed rollout of virus testing.  During that time I learned a lot about the virus, reading every story I could that featured medical experts – not wacko conspiracists – while trying to soak up the facts and information.  I especially listened to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is quickly becoming a national hero.  A week earlier, Donald Trump had said not to worry or prepare because "it will suddenly disappear," and he was continuing to make ridiculous statements that downplayed the threat.  

Trying to reconcile Trump’s “happy talk" against the virus' high contagion and fatality rate and the lack of a vaccine, I was thinking with dread about what life in the U.S. could be like in a few months, given those conflicting messages.  I thought about not just our healthcare situation but also our economy.  So I decided to retrench once again.

The Dow Jones had hit a peak a month earlier on February 12 at over 29,000 and had been steadily dropping since.  Finally, at around 24,000, I said "No Mas" and on March 8 I shifted my funds out of stocks and into safer venues like bonds and Treasury funds.  I rarely change my portfolio based on current events and usually let things ride no matter how bad a current situation might seem, figuring that the market will eventually recover.  But this time, and against the advice of market "wizards" who say that you should never try to time the market, I pulled out.  I had lost a lot of money by then but, in retrospect, not nearly as much as I could've if I'd listened to Trump's poppycock and stayed in. 

I follow the news closely and, given the potency of this virus and this country’s total lack of preparation and feeble leadership, I think the economy is going to take a big hit over the coming months and will continue to slide.  I don’t believe most Americans are ready for what’s coming, in terms of either their health or their pocketbook -- or in terms of the social disruption that could possibly unfold in the coming months, if what the medical experts are saying comes true.

But immediately after shifting my funds, once again I thought maybe I had overreacted.  A few days later, Trump gave a confused and bumbling televised speech meant to “calm" America -- and in response, the Dow promptly dropped 2,000 points.  So I'm glad I got out when I did, because markets don't like uncertainty and there's a lot of that right now.  I’m hoping the virus will recede in the spring with warmer weather, like the flu normally does.  If it does, the market may rebound over the next few months and hopefully I’ll feel foolish come May or June.  But I'm not sanguine given what I know about the situation:  how contagious and deadly the virus is, the lack of capacity in the American healthcare system, and the lame curtailment effort coming from the White House. 

I saw photos yesterday of restaurants in Baltimore and New York that were packed (mostly with younger folks) and with lines going out the door.  No one seemed to be bothered by a triviality like a global pandemic.  Then I watched a TV broadcast on Sunday of Portland's major league soccer team, the Timbers, play a game here in Portland.  The stadium was packed with 25,000 fans sitting shoulder-to-shoulder while yelling and coughing into each other's faces.  As I watched the game on TV, all I could think was, "Those are 25,000 idiots."  I enjoy watching professional soccer but was glad to hear this week that the season has been postponed.  The same with the NBA, and the cancellation of March Madness.  I love watching basketball but, heck, it's not worth it. 

We have to put our political differences aside now, come together as a nation, and focus on beating this virus.  We're all responsible for solving this crisis:  young and old, urban and rural, left and right, blue state and red state.  If you get sick, you threaten my life and vice-versa, so all of us Americans must pitch in now and help each other.  Donald Trump has spent the last four years trying to divide this country and, as the Divider-in-Chief, he's done a great job.  But now we need to ignore him and work together to bring this country back together, because that's the only way we're going to solve this problem.  It's become a trite phrase, but we really are all in this together.  

Today (March 15, 2020)

Early this morning I went to the grocery store for the first time in three weeks, needing milk, bread and other perishables -- plus fixings for my favorite Indian dish, chicken tikka masala.  Normally I enjoy going to the store, but not now when a trip there could potentially be fatal, given the numerous reported cases of coronavirus in Washington County and the possibly dozens or hundreds of unreported cases here.  I thought about wearing my N95 paper mask or even my heavy-duty full-face respirator, both of which I'd bought last year to do some construction work.  But then I remembered Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's leading the nation's fight against the coronavirus, saying on TV:  "You don't need a mask!"  In fact, as he said, wearing a mask could be counter-productive.  O.K., Tony -- no mask.

Above:  Hunkering down in Portland with my hand sanitizer at the ready.

I got up at 5:45 a.m. hoping to avoid the crowds and anyone who was infected, and in the darkness 20 minutes later I pulled into the parking lot of the Fred Meyer grocery store, shortly after the store had opened.  There was a much larger crowd at 6:05 a.m. than I figured there would be and some of the shelves were barren.  Hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and paper towels were all gone, and the bread and poultry were almost sold out.  But otherwise the store was stocked pretty well and everyone was calm.   I had brought along a small bottle of hand sanitizer and reapplied it three times during my visit.  Studying expiration dates closely, I got four precious gallons of milk, enough to last me through early April, but I might not come back then.  Given the substantial "Leu's Market" in my closet upstairs and the surprisingly rapid spread of this virus, I figured this might be my last trip to the store for a long while.  Hello, Chunky Soup!  

After one last dab of hand sanitizer while loading the groceries into my truck, I drove back home and parked in my garage.  I divided up my groceries and brought everything needing refrigeration into the house, but everything else I left in the garage, not wanting to touch it for a few days to let any potential viruses die off.  I also immediately changed my clothes, throwing the clothes I'd worn into the washer, and, of course, I washed my hands.  

Three weeks ago, I figured there was no way Oregon would be in a virtual state of lockdown today or that I'd need to take measures like decontaminating my clothes after a brief trip to the grocery store.  Every time I’ve taken actions in response to the coronavirus these past three weeks -- stocking up on food, leaving my job at Metro, adjusting my portfolio -- I thought I was probably overreacting.  But a few days or a week later, I realized that if anything, I had under-reacted each time.  I’ve consistently underestimated this virus and what it can do to our society.  That's a reflection of how quickly the problem is escalating, and it's a trend-line that doesn’t bode well for the coming weeks and months. 

Continuing with that trend-line, and if you're curious about what life in America could be like in a few weeks, look at the situation in Italy right now and prepare yourself.  This will be a challenge.  But working together, we can get through it.


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